Where’s the smoke from? First, most smoke around here comes from burning corn waste. This is hard for people living in Chiang Mai to believe because as you sit here, what you see is burning mountains. But if you look around the world today, continent by continent, there are massive fires of crop waste. Today, we worry about Thailand but next will be Vietnam and China. By June, the smoke from rice straw burning will blanket Beijing. Then the fires will move to Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, jump the Atlantic and burn across Africa. Then it’ll be the Near East, India and Pakistan before again returning to us. It’s always burning crop waste: corn, rice, wheat.
Here in Thailand, corn growing has exploded. Corn is a dirty crop. Only 22% is grain. The other 78% is waste that here mostly gets burned generating the PM 2.5 haze we suffer. The second source of smoke around here is forest fires, mostly crop waste fires that have escaped from corn fields in the forest. Unfortunately, some people set them deliberately (often for pay) to collect mushrooms. Why? Mushrooms are brown; burned ground is black. It’s easier to see them.
Behind the burning lies a single problem: poverty. According to the Thai National Statistic Office, the people who grow corn on our mountains live in families averaging 3.9 members, almost 40% of whom live on less than 10,000 baht a month, less than 2,500 baht per person. You can earn that in half a day picking mushrooms. You grow corn; you can survive. Poverty is the underlying cause.
Some – just some – of our smoke comes from our neighbours – foreign and Thai – because of our geography and weather. Under certain conditions, smoke will make a big circle up from Myanmar or Laos and down our valley. Then there’s smoke blown up from sugarcane plantations in the south. Unfortunately, today the government is telling growers in central Thailand to switch from corn to sugarcane. This will increase the smoke by returning us to when sugarcane was the largest source of smoke in Thailand. It has been overtaken only recently as corn has expanded rapidly to supply animal feed for meat and dairy. We are feeding the fire with our own desires.
Nobody talks about forest loss. Many of Thailand’s problems today start with the destructions of the forest. The North has long suffered huge losses of forest. All these bald mountains were forested until they were burned to clear them for corn. Those missing forests are also destroyed watersheds where the rainfall does not penetrate the soil. It runs in sheets straight off the sun hardened clay. It doesn’t stick around to grow crops. It floods Bangkok. Bangkok’s floods can be blamed on the expansion of cornfields in the North where everything is drying up. If we don’t protect those forests, we are all going to be very thirsty very soon. The only solution is to protect our remaining forests from being burned to plant corn.
Another big source of smoke is cooking with charcoal made from forest wood. Charcoal produces a huge amount of smoke while it ‘chars’ for seven days. This charring is inefficient, yielding only 7% of the weight of the wood in charcoal, and then charcoal burns dirty when used. For the 60% of people who cook with charcoal, the smoke is deadly. The killer is PM2.5, particles so small that they penetrate the walls of the lungs and travel via the bloodstream to the brain, kidneys and liver. PM2.5 is a major factor in why we have the highest infant mortality rate in the country, the highest stroke and heart attack rates, the highest rate of premature death among our elders.
We need to stop crop waste burning by teaching small farmers how to convert crop waste into biochar right now. Making biochar produces no smoke and when burned, it doesn’t smoke or smell like charcoal, and burns hotter and longer, too. It takes five tonnes of crop waste to make a tonne of biochar; satisfying our demand for charcoal by substituting biochar should reduce burning, clean our air and save lives.
The north of Thailand has the highest infant mortality rate in the country with the highest stroke, the highest heart attack rate, the highest rate of premature death among our elders. How is this happening? When gathered around all those fires lit daily for cooking or to stay warm…and breathing.
Edited excerpt from a talk by Michael Shafer, Founder and Director of Warm Heart Foundation at the Breath Council’s Clean Air for Everyone event at Folklife Museum on 19th January 2020.